Recently, I’ve done reviews of what people would call “high end” weapons. Guns that cost well over a grand or two are certainly remarkable and show us just what the finer things in life are all about. To some people, reading about these sorts of firearms, like the Wilson Combats or the SIG P229SAS DAK, is like reading a car magazine article about the latest Ferrari…something awesome, but un unobtainable. After several such articles, some got frustrated and wrote me e-mails, crying out for me to write about realistic guns, stating that these guns that I’ve covered are too expensive and only for the elites. To those folks, I understand your frustration. I too am not of the elite ruling class with such lofty sums of slush money laying around, where I could just go out on a whim and buy a fancy-schmancy, semi-custom gun every month. But to those who think that such guns are fully unobtainable, to them I say this: Nuts! Those guns are expensive. They deserve to be, and they are worthy of their prices, but they are not unobtainable.
Unfortunately for S&W, the name “Chief’s Special” held little weight when the gun came out. As much as we all loved the old one, the new one left many feeling disappointed.
Plan your purchase ahead of time, set up a savings account for it and start putting money away for something special like that. Buying a fine gun is not spending money; it’s an investment. It’s an investment economically, and it’s an investment in yourself. You are worth it. And even at two grand, a fine gun is not outrageous. It’s maybe a year’s worth of savings. If you are a smoker, stop smoking and the savings could easily pay for a Wilson, an Ed Brown or a Clark Custom. I say this because I want you to tell yourself that you are worth it. You are worthy of a great handgun or rifle. You deserve it. I already know you are worthy of it because you take your personal defense and the defense of your loved ones seriously, and I know this because you are reading Concealed Carry Magazine. This puts you at the head of the class.
You know your responsibilities, your limitations, and your capabilities. Or you are putting forth the effort to learn them. Why not invest in yourself? Go for it. Start putting some money away, a little at a time. Not in your normal accounts, but someplace where you won’t touch it. When you have enough, then go shopping for the one great gun that catches your eye. Don’t ask me which one you should get. You know the one you really want. Until you have that little personal defense nest egg, let’s talk about a pistol that you can afford.
I have a little pistol right here that deserves a closer look. I kept passing by it myself and never gave it a second thought. I’ve never even had one single person ask to take a look at it. It’s one of those stealth guns, a gun that no one looks at but is probably one of the best choices. Why do people pass it by? For one, it’s an S&W semi-automatic, which is to say it’s a step up from a Ruger semi-automatic, and thus, not anyone’s first choice in a new gun. It’s a weird flat black color that is almost a dark grey and the frame is an almost shiny black aluminum. Visually, this is not a combination that has any degree of attraction, not even to those people who like ugly things, like Glocks, Pontiacs and anything from Pearl Jam after their first album. I’m talking about the 9mm Chief’s Special (CS9).
S&W likes to use their old names that have a lot of currency within the industry, just like the car industry does when they design something new and want it to be thought of as instantly cool, such as the Dodge Charger. This naming convention actually works because people can identify with them. The Chief’s Special was and is a classic snub-nosed revolver with a lot of history. (S&W did the same thing, releasing their latest automatic with the name “Military & Police.”) Unfortunately for S&W, the name “Chief’s Special” held little weight when the gun came out. As much as we all loved the old one, the new one left many feeling disappointed. Many gun writers claimed this to be the next greatest thing since noncorrosive primers, and then they ripped the gun for being inaccurate. The stigma of being inaccurate really hurt the CS9 and the sales have been soft. I’ve seen lots of CS9s on the used market and they really don’t move all that well. S&W still has the CS9 in their catalog, so they are still making more of them. The supply and demand scale balances out in our favor. This is very good for us folks who are looking for the most “bang for our buck” until we can buy one of those dream guns.
The CS9 is a subcompact, seven round, single stack, magazine fed, 9mm automatic. It has a steel slide, a lightweight alloy frame and comfortable rubber grips. I can only wrap two fingers around the grip with one on the trigger, yet the gun is comfortable in my hand and fills my palm with grippy-soft rubber. This is kind of an oddity in the Smith & Wesson “third generation” family of automatics. None of the others feel good in my hand, but this one does. Amazing! The sights are the standard “snag-free Novak” style sights with the “plain Jane” 3 white dots. I would certainly rather have tritium sights on this gun (and any gun with the purpose of defense), but for a bargain level pistol, I’m not expecting them and I’m not going to dock points for the lack of them. If you are hard on cash, you can buy a gun like this and wait a month to have night sights installed later.
In all honesty, the gun really is an ugly duckling, but we all know how that story ended. Forget that the gun is a strange and shrunken version of a third generation Smith with a finish that reminds us of a primer coated Chevy Nova. And close your eyes…The gun really has a good feel to it for one so small. The gun carries well when tucked into an inside-the-waistband holster. The gun hides well too. The rubber grips are soft enough to afford a seriously usable fighting grip, even with only two fingers. The gun draws easily and points naturally. This is an aberration of everything I’ve ever thought of S&W semi-autos before I examined this CS9.
I like the solid, all metal construction. There is no subconscious distrust of plastic frames and none of that weird, top-heavy imbalance of steel over plastic.
The trigger is long and a little heavy, but smooth. I can deal with heavy. I can deal with long. I can deal with both if the trigger is smooth. Most of the third generation Smiths have smoother than average triggers, and some are smoother than others.
There is a little creep at the end of the pull, just before the sear breaks and the gun fires…just a touch. Overall, this is a good trigger, one of the better ones that I’ve felt on a gun that costs less than a grand. The trigger action is a typical double-action/single-action affair. The first pull is long and heavy (but smooth) and follow-up shots are short, light and crisp; about 8 or 9 pounds double-action, and about 4 pounds single-action. The hammer is bobbed like the tail on a Doberman. It’s there, just cut down real stubby like. There is a slide-mounted safety lever, which decocks the action and disconnects the trigger. There is also a magazine disconnect safety, which also disables the trigger when the magazine is out of the gun. This is a pretty safe set-up, about as safe as you can get in a handgun of any make or model. Of course, the #1 safety is following the very simple rule of keeping your bloody finger off of the bloody trigger until you are on target with the intention of firing the gun and destroying the target.
What I really like about this gun is that it comes up on plane so easily and precisely. What I mean by that is that when I look at a target, grip my gun naturally and bring the gun up to eye level, the gun is pointing at my target without me having to adjust my grip. For example, with Glocks I have to consciously push the front sight post down to get it on target (one of the reasons Glocks are not for me). A gun that comes up on plane like this is well suited for defensive carry. If it comes up a bit low, that’s not so bad, but it’s like a game of “21” (21, you win; 22 or more, you lose). The closest to 21 wins. This gun is a winner in this test.
I like the solid, all metal construction. There is no subconscious distrust of plastic frames and none of that weird, top-heavy imbalance of steel over plastic. Yeah, I’m saying plastic. Polymer, no matter how advanced, reinforced or space aged, is still plastic. Plastic is plastic is plastic. We make cheap toys for happy meals out of plastic. This Smith is made from hardened aluminum alloy. We make jet fighters, baseball bats, and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles out of aluminum. Remember during the Rolling Thunder missions into Baghdad that M3 Bradley that was on fire, yet kept rolling and firing its guns until it ran out of ammo? Yeah, that was made of aluminum alloy. Aluminum can make for a ferocious weapon system.
The frame rails are not as smooth as the alloy rails in a SIG, but they are very smooth. The slide cycles easily along these rails, and with little effort compared to other subcompact automatics. Really, the only subcompact that is this effortless is the Beretta Mini Cougar. Good luck finding one of those. If you have one, pat yourself on the back and promise yourself to never get rid of it.
The barrel has a little tiny bit of play against of the muzzle end of the slide, and there is a pretty decent amount of slack between the frame and the slide. This gun isn’t supposed to be a tack driver, and I don’t think anyone will mistake it as such. But the gun is an accurate enough subcompact semi-automatic. This isn’t Bull’s-Eye Shooter’s Magazine. And really, any gun that can fire all of its rounds into a nice little clover leaf is all fine and well, but that is not the point of the exercise or of this magazine. Plain and simple, is this a gun that could save your butt when you are confronted by a maniacal Neanderthal? Yes. This gun is worthy and certifiable for CCW use if you qualify with it, if your example is reliable, if you can make your hits with it, and if you are confident with it. I would have no reservations carrying one of these concealed myself, and in fact, I have done so.
I’m not going to get into a 9mm versus larger caliber debate here, but I think a 9mm that you can shoot well with is just fine for personal defense use, especially when loaded with good quality, factory made, jacketed hollow points. For this gun, I’d carry Winchester SXTs or Hornady XTP ammunition, and maybe something in 124 grains. Deep penetration is the quality we are looking for, and good expansion is an added bonus. If you load up with that sort of ammunition, you do your job and you put that bullet through the goblin in a vector that intersects something vital, you will get results. And remember, anything worth shooting is worth shooting twice. Don’t fire a shot and wait to see what happens. Fire a couple more shots into the villain and let the bullets use a little teamwork. Trust me. By doing this, the bad guy isn’t going to feel a difference between 9mm or .45 ACP. He’s going to be preoccupied with things like trying to breathe and deciding whether or not he should go to the light.
In the right hands, a Chief’s Special 9mm will facilitate that decision-making process just fine. Sure, it only carries 7 rounds in each magazine, so one mag plus a reload is going to give you only 14 rounds plus the one you had chambered initially. That’s about the same as the capacity in one good old double-stacked mag. But let’s be realistic. Most gunfights are only a couple shots. It is very rare to have a running gun battle that requires tactical reloads and dumping boxful after boxful of ammunition. It’s good to be ready for such a thing if it goes down, but if you are planning on that, why not plan on fighting your way to your trunk, which has your shotgun or carbine ready and waiting?
Let’s not forget about what this gun is for, rather than how it fulfills IDPA fantasy scenarios. A bad guy threatens you and you have to respond with speed, resolution and violence of action. Even if the bad guy has a buddy, it’s unlikely that he is going to stick up for his friend after you drilled him without hesitation. No, I am not going to sugar coat it. This is what happens when you make the decision to carry a gun and to be the one who is responsible for protecting your own hide. You can call the police if you have time, or call them afterwards, because they are not likely to be there when you need them. I wish this were not the case.
The idea of pulling the trigger on someone always makes my physically ill, but that is not going to stop a bad guy and that is not going to stop me from doing everything in my power to stop that bad guy, even if I have to pull the trigger, or pull out my folding knife and gut him like a freshly hung buck on opening day of deer season. You need a weapon that you can have on your person. A large capacity, big bore automatic is not likely to be that weapon all the time. A smaller weapon, such as the Chief’s Special 9mm might be.
This Chief’s Special 9mm is a tool that I have a lot of confidence in. I would trust it to defend my loved ones.
There are only a few worthwhile guns in the CS9’s class, Such as the SIG P225, the CZ 2075 RAMI and STI’s LS9. Of these four guns, the Smith and the ones I just named, only the Smith can be found used for about four hundred bucks if you shop around. As such, it becomes an impressive piece of hardware that discredits the notion of getting only what you pay for.
However, it is not without its warts. The first wart you notice is that the gun seems excessively thick. A Ruger auto would be happy to be so trim, but it is thick, much like a Beretta Mini Cougar. Both of these guns are much thicker than the CS9. Then there is the other wart. In shooting the CS9, you find the reasons that gun-writers have labeled it inaccurate. Most of those gun-writers fire the gun from a Ransom Rest, a mechanical device that holds the gun for them so they don’t even hold the gun when they shoot it. Sure, you can measure the gun’s ability to group shots this way, taking away human error and natural variables, but this is kind of like only measuring the amount of G-forces on a skid pad that a car can pull and using that as a way to quantify a car’s handling. It doesn’t quite work that way in the real world.
Handling is something that requires you to have both hands on the wheel, and curves come at you from different directions. In shooting, you have to get your hands dirty. A gun that might shoot well in a Ransom Rest might not shoot as well in the hand. For example, the CZ 100…With the CS9, they didn’t shoot that well using the Ransom Rests, at least for the writers at the time, the ones who write ammunition reviews instead of gun reviews (kinda like reading a car review written by someone who can only write about the tires). In the hand, it’s a different story. The little gun soaks up recoil energy like crazy. The funny grip shape, combined with the soft rubber work very well at absorbing whatever recoil forces are left over.
The gun is a powder puff to shoot, even with the hottest ammunition available. 124 grain, 147 grain, 115 +P and 115 grain +P+ ammunition all fed and fired with perfect grace and reliability. Unfortunately, they all impacted the target between 2 to 4 inches lower than my point of aim, so the gun hits low. This isn’t really a problem, just something you have to be aware of. Also, the shot groups averaged from 2 to almost 5 inches. The CS9 didn’t do well at all with high-pressure ammo, preferring standard loads for best accuracy. The most accurate rounds tested were simple Blazer Brass 115 grainers and Winchester 124 grain SXTs. These rounds produced consistent 2-inch groups, consistently about 2 inches low. For our purposes, this is acceptable performance. UMC ammunition isn’t even worth loading up into a CS9 magazine. Winchester White Box was also disappointing. Your CS9 might behave differently. The one I tested is a used gun and we don’t know how it was treated before I got a hold of it. From the wear marks and other marks on it, I’m guessing that it was abused and neglected. With consistent and predictable results, this repeatable performance is something I find acceptable, especially considering that I never once experienced a single malfunction, and that is the most important hurdle.
This Chief’s Special 9mm is a tool that I have a lot of confidence in. I would trust it to defend my loved ones. I can hit with it. In spite of hitting low, I was able to bounce cans and soda bottles with pleasant regularity, so a human size target would be no great challenge. I can carry it with me most places I go to that are not post offices or other federal buildings. The more I look at this little pistol, the more I like it, and the more I am tempted to adopt it as one of my own. I really can’t believe I’m even thinking this. This is a Smith & Wesson third generation semi-auto, for crying out loud, and I’m liking it!
This gun is one of those things that are more than the sum of its parts. There is something special about the Chief’s Special. I would like to put a little gunsmithing love into this gun. Night sights are a must. A little weight loss program could go a long way to slim this thing down. The grips are comfy to shoot, but a bit too thick, and the rubber can be a too sticky and cause covering garments to hang, and thus allow the weapon to print. A good set of wood grips would give the gun a slicker look and feel, thin the butt down a bit and just improve the overall carry quality.
As a stock gun, it’s not so great, but it is a good handgun worth consideration.
The decocker/safety is also large, about the same size as on a full size S&W auto. This isn’t necessary, is it? We could have this trimmed to a flatter profile that would slim the gun and still allow workable function. Even putting in a simple double-action-only trigger wouldn’t be a bad option. While some guys don’t like them, I don’t mind them on this sort of weapon. A nice “melt job” on the trigger guard and muzzle end, with some dehorning around the rest of the edges would really make this gun an excellent CCW package.
The gun and the cost of the desired gunsmithing work would still cost me much less than the MSRP of a certain plastic-framed German pistol that I know of. That’s not a bad deal at all. It might not be the stuff of dreams, or even something that you would ask the guy behind the gun counter to take a closer look at. As a stock gun, it’s not so great, but it is a good handgun worth consideration. If you see one at your local dealer or on a table at a gun show, take a moment to pick it up and feel it. Point it. See for yourself.
Photography by George and Deveni.